NTW on Penal Substitution Debates

The following is a brief intermission in my month-long hiatus…

N.T. Wright has just written an article that brilliantly captures many of my feelings about current evangelical debates about penal substitution, which is currently causing all sorts of splits and disagreements in evangelical circles in the UK. He also addresses critics of the doctrine and clarifies where he stands in relation to the work of Steve Chalke, for example.

There are few things that frustrate me more than evangelical debates about penal substitution. I am convinced, with Wright, that, whilst they capture something of the Scriptural teaching of the atonement, most evangelical penal substitution accounts are woefully sub-biblical. All too often they consist of some decontextualized prooftexts loosely strung together by a rather abstract theological theory and fall far short of the rich and multifaceted story that the Scriptures present us with. Although I am persuaded of the truth of penal substitution, I usually feel that such theories are not a whole lot better than many of the accounts given by those who deny penal substitution altogether. I have also come to realize that evangelical rhetoric often merely masks a lack of receptive engagement with Scripture. It may seem strange to some, but I am increasingly coming to the conviction that, if receptivity to the Scriptures is what I am looking for, I might be better off reading some good Roman Catholics as, somewhat ironically, they are often less invested in the perfect truth of their tradition than many evangelicals are.

The following are some quotes from Wright’s article. I highly recommend that you read the whole thing.

And I was put in mind of a characteristically gentle remark of Henry Chadwick, in his introductory lectures on doctrine which I attended my first year in Oxford. After carefully discussing all the various theories of atonement, Dr Chadwick allowed that there were of course some problems with the idea of penal substitution. But he said, ‘until something like this has been said, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the full story has not yet been told.’ For myself, I prefer to go with Henry Chadwick, and James Denney – and Wesley and Watts, and Cranmer and Hooker, and Athanasius and Augustine and Aquinas – and Paul, Peter, Mark, Luke, John – and, I believe Jesus himself. To throw away the reality because you don’t like the caricature is like cutting out the patient’s heart to stop a nosebleed. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and all because of the unstoppable love of the one creator God. There is ‘no condemnation’ for those who are in Christ, because on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh of the Son who, as the expression of his own self-giving love, had been sent for that very purpose. ‘He did not spare his very own Son, but gave him up for us all.’ That’s what Good Friday was, and is, all about.


What then do I mean by saying that Pierced for Our Transgressions is deeply unbiblical? Just this: it abstracts certain elements from what the Bible actually says, elements which are undoubtedly there and which undoubtedly matter, but then places them within a different framework, which admittedly has a lot in common with the biblical one, but which, when treated as though it were the biblical one, becomes systematically misleading. An illustration I have often used may make the point. When a child is faced with a follow-the-dots puzzle, she may grasp the first general idea – that the point is to draw a pencil line joining the dots together and so making a picture – without grasping the second – that the point is to draw the lines according to the sequence of the numbers that go with each dot. If you ignore the actual order of the numbers, you can still join up all the dots, but you may well end up drawing, shall we say, a donkey instead of an elephant. Or you may get part of the elephant, but you may get the trunk muddled up with the front legs. Or whatever. Even so, it is possible to join up all the dots of biblical doctrines, to go down a list of key dogmas and tick all the boxes, but still to join them up with a narrative which may well overlap with the one the Bible tells in some ways but which emphatically does not in other ways. And that is, visibly and demonstrably, what has happened in Pierced for Our Transgressions, at both large and small scale.


But the biggest, and most worrying, unbiblical feature of Pierced for Our Transgressions is the outright refusal to have anything seriously to do with the gospels. This is a massive problem, which I believe to be cognate with all kinds of other difficulties within today’s church, not least within today’s evangelicalism. There is no space here to open up this question more than a very little. Let me just tell it as I see it on reading this new book.

I was startled, to begin with, at the fact that the foundational chapter, entitled ‘Searching the Scriptures: The Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution’, has precisely six pages on the Gospel of Mark, a good bit of which consists of lengthy biblical quotations, and four on John. And that’s it for the gospels. I don’t disagree with most of those ten pages, but it is truly astonishing that a book like this, claiming to offer a fairly full-dress and biblically-rooted doctrine of the meaning of the cross, would not only omit Matthew and Luke, and truncate Mark and John so thoroughly (sifting them for prooftexts, alas), but would ignore entirely the massive and central question of Jesus’ own attitude to his own forthcoming death, on the one hand, and the way in which the stories the evangelists tell are themselves large-scale interpretations of the cross, on the other. One would not know, from this account, that there was anything to all this other than Mark 10.45 (‘the Son of Man came . . . to give his life a ransom for many’) and a few other key texts, such as the ‘cup’ which Jesus prayed might pass, but which he eventually drank.


I am forced to conclude that there is a substantial swathe of contemporary evangelicalism which actually doesn’t know what the gospels themselves are there for, and would rather elevate ‘Paul’ (inverted commas, because it is their reading of Paul, rather than the real thing, that they elevate) and treat Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as mere repositories of Jesus’ stories from which certain doctrinal and theological nuggets may be collected. And this, sadly, chimes in with other impressions I have received from elsewhere within the same theological stable – with, for instance, the suggestion that since Paul’s epistles give us ‘the gospel’ while ‘the Gospels’ simply give us stories about Jesus, we shouldn’t make the reading of the latter into the key moment in the first half of the Communion Serice. (In case anyone should rub their eyes in disbelief, I have actually heard this seriously argued more than once in the last year or two.)


There are large issues here of theological method and biblical content, all interacting with other large issues of contemporary hermeneutics: would I be totally wrong, for instance, to see some of the horrified reaction to Steve Chalke, and to some of the ‘Emerging Church’ reappropriation of the gospels, as a reaction, not so much against what is said about the atonement, but against the idea, which is powerfully present in the gospels, that God’s kingdom is coming, with Jesus, ‘on earth as in heaven’, and that if this is so we must rethink several cherished assumptions within the western tradition as a whole? Might it not be the case that the marginalisation of the four gospels as serious theological documents within Western Christianity, not least modern evangelicalism, is a fear that if we took them seriously we might have to admit that Jesus of Nazareth has a claim on our political life as well as our spiritual life and ‘eternal destiny’? And might there not be a fear, among those who are most shrill in their propagation of certain types of ‘penal substitution’, that there might be other types of the same doctrine which would integrate rather closely with the sense that on the cross God passed sentence on all the human powers and authorities that put Jesus there? John 18 and 19 as a whole (and not only in individual words and phrases), and 1 Corinthians 2 and Colossians 2 as wholes, have an enormous amount to say about the biblical meaning of the cross which you would never, ever guess from reading Pierced for Our Transgressions and other works like it.


Sadly, the debate I have reviewed – with the honourable and brief exception of Robert Jenson’s article which began this whole train of thought – shows every sign of the postmodern malaise of a failure to think, to read texts, to do business with what people actually write and say rather than (as is so much easier!) with the political labelling and dismissal of people on the basis of either flimsy evidence or ‘guilt by association’. We live in difficult times and it would be good to find evidence of people on all sides of all questions taking the attitude of the Beroeans in Acts 17, who ‘searched the scriptures daily to see if these things were so’, instead of ‘knowing’ in advance what scripture is going to say, ought to say, could not possibly say, or must really have said (if only the authors hadn’t made it so obscure!).

As I have already suggested, read the whole article for yourself.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, N.T. Wright, Quotations, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to NTW on Penal Substitution Debates

  1. Pingback: Mark Horne » N. T. Wright on Steve Chalke

  2. I find it very sad that most of the stalwart defenders of penal substitution do not recognize that Wright has given them one of the strongest arguments for their doctrine imaginable: he shows that Jesus’ own theology teaches it. But recognizing that would require sympathy, which is in short supply nowadays.

  3. pduggie says:


    For a start, you cannot easily align sacrifice and lawcourt. When an animal is killed sacrificially, it is by no means clear that it is simply taking the punishment which would otherwise fall on the worshipper. That would be a crude diminishment of even the Passover, where the idea of averting wrath is paramount; it does not work at all for several of the sacrifices, and attempts to make it work (for instance, in J, O and S’s attempted refutation of John Goldingay on pp. 47f.) are lame and unconvincing. We shouldn’t forget that of the two goats on the Day of Atonement, the one over whose head confession of sin was made was the one that was not sacrificed, presumably because it was thereby unclean. As a historian and theologian, I have a sense that we all need to do a good deal more work on ‘sacrifice’, to understand more of its depths and meaning before we flatten it out into ‘animals taking our punishment’ and then transfer that wholesale to Jesus. I am not saying that there is nothing penal or substitutionary in the OT sacrificial system, merely that the whole is much greater and more complex than this particular part.

    seems someone tendentious. Yes, ther eis complexity, but I think Wright maybe should try to do some work on sacrifices and the judicial presence of God at the tabernacle himself.

    JBJ’s work here might be very helpful

  4. Al says:


    I think that JBJ’s work is closer to Wright on this point than it is to those whom Wright is criticizing. JBJ’s account of the sacrificial system seems to go quite some way beyond the fundamentally punitive system that most evangelicals operate in terms of.

    JBJ’s understanding of the sacrificial system focuses on concepts of covenant renewal, establishment of fellowship and the like. Propitiatory sacrifice is merely one part of this far greater system and not its fundamental purpose.

  5. Andrew says:

    I see there being a continuum between:
    1. Those who hold a fully-orbed pan-standard traditional-protestant view of Penal Substitution (PS).
    2. Those who hold some elements of PS but mix and match it with other views like Christus Victor (CV) and Moral Exemplar (ME).
    3. Those who reject all elements of PS entirely and hold only some other view such as CV or ME.

    To give a little continuum picture:
    1 . . . 2 . . . 3

    Now Wright himself is somewhere around point 2, since he holds Christus Victor as the primary model and sees a place for PS elements to slot into the CV framework.

    Wright started off in the article by dealing with the people who were at 3 and were attacking 1. I felt embarrassed for Wright when he claimed this was a straw-man. Clearly there are people who hold positions near and at 1, and this is not a straw-man at all. Wright seemed to commit this error by mis-identifying himself as someone who holds to “Penal Substitution” without qualification. In reality, as the article shows, Wright opposes those at 1 who hold unqualified penal substitution.

    Wright seemed to have a lack of awareness of just how popular and widespread among conservative evangelicals position 1 really is. I do not think position 1 can be characterized as a deviant view of 2 as Wright attempts to do… rather position 1 represents the mainstream view among conservatives, and position 3 the mainstream view among liberals. It is Wright’s own position 2 which is actually somewhat novel and unusual… as far as I know, the notion of combining multiple atonement motifs has only really begun to be widely popular within the last fifty years. I was inclined to feel that it was either disingenuous or ignorant of Wright to attempt to pass off his own position as normative and traditional when it is in fact novel.

    Instead of pretending that 1 is a straw-man of 2, he would do better to simply admit that his view is a distinctly different and new view to 1 and 3 and argue that it has the merits of both without the problems of either. I think he would do better to attempt to advocate his view in its own right, and attempt to explain his view clearly in such a way as to be acceptable to adherents of both views 1 and 3. Now I know he has tried to do so to some extent in both this article and in JatVoG which I have read, however it seems to me that in both he falls well short of presenting a clear or compelling case about what he actually believes about the atonement. How can he expect others to hold to or be convinced by his position when he does not explain concisely what it is?

  6. Andrew says:

    > I find it very sad that most of the
    > stalwart defenders of penal
    > substitution do not recognize that
    > Wright has given them one of the
    > strongest arguments for their
    > doctrine imaginable: he shows that
    > Jesus’ own theology teaches it.

    But, as you saw in the article, he attacks defenders of PS as often as he aids them. He considers a thorough-going unqualified view of PS to be “unbiblical”. Yet he believes that the bible’s account has penal elements. So I can see why stalwart PS defenders are ambivalent towards him on this issue.

    As for Wright having “given” them the argument that Jesus’ theology teaches PS, I am not convinced. Such arguments were around long before Wright was. Conservatives and liberals have been arguing over whether PS or Moral Exemplar better fit Jesus’ theology for about 1000 years now. Speaking as someone who enjoys studying atonement theories and arguments about them, Wright has yet to contribute anything on the subject I would consider worth mentioning.

  7. From what I have read (and I have read broadly, though perhaps not comprehensively, on the subject of atonement theology), Wright is the only one to make the connection between Jesus proclaiming the judgment of God on Israel for its brigandry (etc.) (sometimes mentioning it was by means of the Romans, sometimes not) and Jesus claiming to substitute himself for the zealots in his own death (cf., e.g., Wright’s discussion of the Barabbas narrative). He may not have been the first one to argue Jesus taught penal substitution, but he sure has given it a far more solid grounding in the 1C Jewish context and in the Gospels itself; Penal substitution now fits in to 1C politics and eschatology, among other things.

  8. Well the lines are drawn clearly in the sand. Unlike you I found this indredibly unhelpful and explained as much at my place

  9. Pingback: Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Morning Highlights

  10. Adrian: I read your piece, and it made me realize one thing I think evangelicals have to admit Wright is correct on: we often do not even attempt to reconcile how God can be simultaneously wrathful and loving in the sending of Jesus. I know the scripture says both separately at times, so it is not necessary to always say both of them at the same time, but given that this debate is about what *theory* or explanation we can give to explain the “mechanism” of the atonement, I think evangelicals have been very poor at explaining how the wrath and love of God are related. It does seem sometimes that in the course of arguing for the atonement, evangelicals have given up the doctrine of divine simplicity; perhaps no one cares about such traditional doctrines anymore.

  11. (p.s.: I’ve posted some of my thoughts on the issue here and here.

  12. Phil says:

    Doug Wilson thinks Wright’s article on atonement theology is weak on denouncing homoerotic behavior.

  13. Jon Bartlett says:

    I’m getting tired of Christians drawing lines in the sand? What happened to love, reconciliation and unity?

  14. Andrew Sach says:

    The authors of Pierced for our Transgressions have posted a response to Wright’s review HERE if anyone is interested.

  15. Al says:

    Thanks for linking to the response, Andrew. It helps to clear some things up.

  16. Mark Jones says:

    What annoys me about Wright is comments like “hopelessly sub-biblical,” and “it becomes embarrassing”, etc., etc.

    DA Carson’s comment at the end of his review of Wright’s book, “Evil and the Justice of God”, is something I’ve felt for some time. Carson writes: “More broadly, Wright has a penchant for replicating the Elijah syndrome: ‘And I, even I only, am left.’ To offer but one of many examples: ‘The trouble with imagining the future world is that we’ve all been given the wrong impression’ (114). Well, I suppose we should be grateful that we have now been given the Wright impression.”

    Wright will take a certain view, one that runs against the grain of Reformed exegesis (not that I have a problem with that in principle), and make it sound like what he sees is all so obvious; just like it was so obvious for Barth or is so obvious for Crossan!

    BTW Alastair, who are the evangelicals that frustrate you with their debates on the atonement?

  17. Christopher Witmer says:

    Looking in from the outside, I think Christian circles in the U.K. could use a few more lines in the sand. A line in the sand is not necessarily a precursor to a Thirty Years’ War or a Nikonian excommunication of anyone who crosses with two fingers. It is a refusal to compromise with Bible-denying liberalism on the fundamentals of the faith.

  18. Al says:


    I think that Wright seriously overstates his case, but I still believe that he has a very strong case. I think that the ‘Elijah syndrome’ that you mention has more to do with excessive rhetoric on Wright’s part than to anything else.

    I think that Wright’s frustration arises from the fact that most evangelical treatments of the atonement miss or seriously neglect what is, if anything, a far more dominant theme in relationship to the cross than that of penal substitution — Christus Victor. When someone like Chalke denies PS, while stressing CV they are attacked for being sub-biblical and seriously unbalanced. The problem is that most evangelical articulations of the cross are generally not a whole lot better. They are almost overwhelmingly orientated towards the questions of individual salvation and draw primarily from a few key passages in Paul and scattered verses elsewhere and tend to say little or nothing about the primary narrative theme of Christus Victor. What they say about penal substitution is generally true enough, but what they often leave unsaid about Christus Victor (and other models) is a startling omission. The fact is that Christus Victor is obviously present within the text, and evangelicals only seem to miss it because they concentrate on looking for penal substitution.

    The evangelicals that I am chiefly referring to are the ones that have been writing in the evangelical magazines, on the blogs and in other ways over the last few years here in the UK. I am also speaking from my experience of personal interaction with people within the context of evangelical churches, within the evangelical Bible college that I attended and from the various talks and sermons that I have listened to on the subject.

  19. garver says:

    I don’t have time to read through the quickly burgeoning debate on this topic. And I’ve only read Wright’s and others’ past work on atonement theology. But a couple of quick points.

    First, in addition to penal substitution, moral exemplar, and christus victor motifs in atonement theology, there’s also room for an approach that centers on recapitulation (very important, e.g., for Irenaeus).

    Part of what is attractive about much of what Wright has written in the past (which I would take to be a sturdy defense of one version of penal substitution), is that he is able to combine elements of all the various approaches through a narrative of recapitulation. That’s to say the story of Jesus is, for Wright, a recapitulation of the story of Israel and, since Israel is a new adamic people, a recapitulation of the story of Adam and, in Adam, all of humanity.

    Personally, I find that a very rich and helpful approach that helps bring together a variety of biblical themes in helpful ways. That’s not to say that Wright gets everything correct on the level of detail (and he’d be the first to admit that), but he has done fruitful work for which we should be grateful.

    Second, if all that Wright says, in the end, is that atonement theories that focus on penal substitution to the exclusion of other models are sub-biblical, then more power to him. That point has been made so often and so forcefully by so many Protestant and evangelical theologians (in recent years, Robert Letham comes to mind, but he’s within a wider tradition, at least among Reformed theologians), I’m surprised anyone would blink an eyelash.

    Third, for D.A. Carson to accuse someone else as having an Elijah syndrome is a bit a rich. Carson’s been cranking out “my way or the highway” books and reviews at an alarming pace for the past 10 or so years.

    The escalation of rhetoric on various sides is, to my mind, not particularly helpful.

  20. Al says:


    I completely agree with you. For example, I would love to see some very clear lines drawn on issues such as homosexuality and women priests.

    However, I would like to see us go about these things in the right way. My problem is not so much with the fact that a line has been drawn on the issue of penal substitution. The problem is with the way that this line-drawing has been handled. I have had enough of being witch-hunted by evangelicals who have never taken the trouble to acquaint themselves with the issues under debate. Drawing lines is an important duty; witch-hunting and scapegoating is a serious sin.

    I have also had enough of evangelicals who draw lines in the sand in ways that rule out Christians whose level of orthodoxy probably exceeds their own. I am not a heretic for believing in the real presence of Christ in the Supper, an efficacious Baptism or a high ecclesiology. I am simply an orthodox Christian.

    My further problem with the line-drawing is that the doctrine of atonement taught in many conservative and traditional evangelical churches is sub-biblical. If we are going to attack people like Chalke and others for their sub-biblical doctrines of atonement, let us also try to get our own houses in order. However, in my experience, evangelicals are often not very good at removing the beams from their own eyes, being more concerned with removing them from the eyes of others. If evangelicals were more receptive to criticism and more concerned with addressing the serious weaknesses in their own proclamation of the cross, I would be far happier to support their line-drawing. As it is, however, Chalke is (rightly) condemned for denying penal substitution, but he strongly articulates Christus Victor, a theme frequently neglected by evangelicals. The truth is not just on the side of the conservative evangelicals here. If evangelicals were more prepared to do justice to the neglected truths that Chalke proclaims, their rejection of his errors would carry more weight.

  21. Al says:


    Thanks for your helpful comments.

    I think that Wright’s critique of evangelical doctrines of atonement would focus on their widespread neglect of key themes and their failure to pay enough attention to the gospel accounts. As Wright observes, the latter is related to a more general neglection of the gospels in evangelical thought. On this I think that he is spot on.

    As regards the exclusion of other models of atonement in evangelicalism, in my experience it is more a matter of serious neglect than exclusion. Other models of atonement simply are not given much airtime. The result is a seriously misplaced accent and imbalance. Even when one does see other models mentioned they are often merely placed within a penal substitution framework.

    I suspect that much of this results from the fact that penal substitution is the traditional evangelical way of teaching the atonement. Other models have usually come from outside of evangelicalism. Conservative evangelicals, apart from a few honourable exceptions, are not the best at engaging with a larger tradition. They will acknowledge the existence and possible use of other models of atonement, but, in my experience, will devote little energy to exploring them and will come back to penal substitution as the dominant model that is at the heart of the gospel. Where are the conservative evangelical theologians who are writing doctrines of the atonement that explore recapitulation, Christus Victor, other satisfaction models, interact with early Church Fathers, theologians from other traditions and thinkers such as Girard and really start to get to grips with the OT sacrificial system (in the way that people like Jordan and Leithart have) on its own terms? Sadly, conservative evangelicalism just doesn’t seem to produce many theologians like this.

  22. Ros says:

    Alastair, while I think you may be right about many evangelical accounts of atonement, that they can be very one-dimensional and, in NTW’s terms, ‘sub-biblical’, I do think it’s very unfair to attack PFOT in this respect.

    The book does not attempt to be a fully-fledged account of the atonement. Such a book would be ten times the size and have taken ten times as long to produce. I happen to know that Garry Williams is making it his life’s work to produce such a book and I eagerly anticipate its publication.

    PFOT only claims to explain one (though clearly one important, and arguably logically central) aspect of the atonement. You may want to argue that this is a foolish premise for the book, but given the nature of recent debates, it seems to me a wise choice to focus on that aspect of the atonement which is being denied rather than those which are generally accepted (such as Christus Victor).

    I’ve sat in Mike Ovey’s lectures on the atonement and I know he doesn’t think that PSA is the only thing that matters. Indeed at the EA symposium, he gave the seminar on Christus Victor.

    Maybe if NTW (or you!) had written a book on the atonement you’d have written a different one. And maybe some will, as you fear, simply use this book as a blunt instrument to stifle healthy debate. But I still think it is a worthwhile endeavour to refute the heresies of the day. I was shocked at the EA conference by just how few people in the room (all calling themselves evangelical) actually held to PSA. When several faculty members from LST have publicly denied the doctrine (though I believe Graham McFarland was later made to retract his statements in print), along with members of the EA council, and other well-known evangelical leaders then it seems to me there is a place for a public defence of the doctrine.

  23. Pingback: Words - » Atonement - Limited or Otherwise

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  25. Al says:


    Thanks for your comments. They are a helpful contribution to this discussion. I have yet to read Pierced for our Transgressions, so I am not qualified to comment on it.

    However, I think that I can understand where Wright is coming from here. Holding a biblical understanding of the cross is undoubtedly of huge importance in our day and age. The problem is that sub-biblical understandings of the cross are widespread in penal substitution-affirming conservative evangelical churches. Such sub-biblical pictures are not challenged with anything like the enthusiasm that questioning of penal subsitution is. There seems to be more zeal for the evangelical tradition than there seems to be for the Bible. Our own errors are excused, while those outside of our tradition are attacked.

    The fact that the conservative evangelical doctrine of penal substitution so often comes under attack is as much our fault as it is that of our theological opponents. The conservative evangelical doctrine of atonement is generally imbalanced and that people overreact against it is not surprising. Until we really begin to recognize this and take action to move towards a more balanced doctrine, we will continue to face problems.

    Wright has identified some key areas in which evangelicals need to reform their doctrines of atonement (e.g. paying more attention to the gospels and the overarching biblical narrative as a whole). Steve Chalke makes much use of the gospels, but conservative evangelicals, from what I have witnessed, seem to have focused on throwing Paul back at him. Chalke is wrong, but a strong response, I believe, would have to move beyond the limited treatment that the gospels have received in the evangelical tradition’s doctrine of atonement.

    Chalke’s position has some persuasive power, something that rests in part on the way that he has revealed an oft-neglected dimension of the atonement. I can understand how, for many, reading Chalke is like a breath of fresh air. People see the theme of Christus Victor clearly presented in the gospels, where the theme of penal substitution is not so prominent (I am not convinced that the theme of penal substitution is actually the dominant theme in Scripture that evangelicals tend to present it to be). They see an atonement with cosmic significance, one that isn’t merely focused on the salvation of particular individuals. An evangelical doctrine of atonement that gives full weight to such themes and did not merely admit their existence, almost as a reluctant concession is that which is needed here.

    I tend to agree with Wright that what is needed at this point is not so much another defence of the evangelical doctrine of penal substitution, but a push towards a fuller doctrine of atonement, in dialogue with people from a range of Christian traditions, with the Church Fathers, medieval and Reformation theologians and, most importantly, with Scripture. I suspect that a significant number of those who react against such doctrines as penal substitution and limited atonement do so because they see the way that an overemphasis on such positions have led people to fail to see much of the richness of the biblical doctrine of atonement. This overemphasis leads to a seriously imbalanced theology and tends to provide us with a distorted picture of things such as God’s wrath.

    I am all for defences of the doctrine of penal substitution. However, I think that such defences must pose a robust challenge to the way that the evangelical tradition has treated the penal substitution model of the atonement to this point. Our criticism of the deniers of penal substitution must be accompanied by strong criticism of the evangelical tradition and must call evangelicals to move towards a more biblical doctrine and not merely pat us on the back for holding the truth of penal substitution. At the moment we are as much part of the problem as we are the solution and we need to come to terms with the fact.

  26. Ros says:

    what is needed at this point is not so much another defence of the evangelical doctrine of penal substitution

    Another? I wonder which previous defence you’re referring to? Books like the Cross of Christ, for instance, don’t attempt to offer anything like the defence that PFOT does (largely, imo, because it’s weak on the doctrine of union with Christ). And actually the Cross of Christ is very helpful on showing the other things achieved on the cross as well as penal substitution. So I wonder what you’re referring to that I’ve missed?

    And I quite agree that we need to be better at articulating a more rounded, biblical doctrine of atonement. I think that was one of the things I was struck by at the EA symposium, was how often the PSA crowd were accused of believing nothing other than PSA. Maybe some of this was mere rhetoric, but I suspect you’re right that much of it is our own fault. I don’t think I know anyone who actually denies Christus Victor, or Moral Exemplar, or Satisfaction (in some form) – just that we tend not to talk about these much, fearing that some might infer we don’t believe in PSA unless we say so every time we open our mouths.

    I do want to (tentatively) affirm you and NTW in your concern that evangelical traditions must be continually subjected to rigorous re-examination in the light of the bible, and I think NTW has been very helpful in much of his work in this area. I guess what saddens me about his response to PFOT was (a) the contrasting manner with which Chalke and the authors of PFOT were treated, which seemed unnecessarily pointed, and (b) his refusal to read the book against its own agenda and purpose, rather than his.

    And it’s a shame because, more as a result of his critique than the publishing of the book itself I think, we now seem to have exactly the kind of debate that you (and I too) find most frustrating. Hmm.

    BTW thanks for your comments on my JOrdan paper – I haven’t had a chance to look at it again since, but should get round to it soon.

  27. Ros says:

    Hmm. Rereading that, I don’t know why I was tentative. I do want to affirm you and NTW in your concern that evangelical traditions must be continually subjected to rigorous re-examination in the light of the bible!

  28. Al says:


    Thank you for your further comments.

    I was referring to the defences and anti-Chalke arguments that one can find all over the British conservative evangelical press and blogosphere and to the many talks and sermons that are given on the subject.

    I think that Wright’s somewhat intemperate response may have something to do with his belief that Chalke is the innocent and misunderstood victim of a conservative evangelical witch-hunt and that a heavily-blurbed book like PFOT is just the latest movce in this.

    Part of the problem that I think that we face is that ‘penal substitution’ is polarizing rhetoric. However, many who react against it hold similar positions, but are concerned to avoid using the language of penal substitution to speak of their position. It creates unhelpful polarizations, rather than the ones that we really want. It is like the language of ‘determinism’. I know a number of Calvinists who happily use such language of themselves; I know a number of others who will try to avoid such language at all costs. ‘Penal substitution’ is an unhelpful shibboleth for similar reasons.

    More searching exploration might reveal that we are not as far apart from many who deny ‘penal substitution’ as might be expected. I can understand why someone might want to reject the language of penal substitution, without rejecting the reality that it is often taken to stand for. I think that this is a significant factor in the case of Chalke (although there is more, I grant).

    As Wright has observed, terms like ‘penal substitution’ are like suitcases for carrying a lot of theological reasoning from one place to another easily. The problem is that many of our evangelical suitcases haven’t been unpacked enough and we can become more concerned with the writing on the front than we are with the internal contents. Slogans become more important than substance. Chalke has attacked some caricatures of penal substitution and does not want to use a standard issue ‘penal substitution’ suitcase for his doctrine of atonement. However, when it comes down to it, from my reading of Chalke, I don’t believe that the contents of his suitcase are as different from the content of a well-packed ‘penal substitution’ suitoase as the heat of the rhetoric in the current debates might suggest.

  29. Andrew W says:

    I agree with what you’re saying here. People like turning things into black and white issues, of “do you hold Penal Substitution or not?”

    But the reality is that not everyone packs their theological “suitcase” the same and there are shades of gray. There are those who, as you put it, “reject the language of penal substitution, without rejecting the reality that it is often taken to stand for”. Whether a person’s theological suitcase has the label “Penal Substitution” written across the outside is irrelevant compared to the far more complex matter of how that suitcase it actually packed.

    Penal Substitution has different parts, and those parts can be mixed and matched with Christus Victor and Moral Exemplar easily. Penal Substitutionary luggage can end up present in suitcases that carry significant other baggage as well… when is it right to stick a “Penal Substitution” label on the suitcase as a whole, and when is it not? It seems like a gray area. The various recent evangelical statements of orthodoxy on the atonement do not seem to make this clear.

    Whether Chalke can be said to agree with, or be vehemently against Penal Substitutionary thinking all comes down to what we are prepared to call Penal Substitution.

    Evangelicals do seem often overeager to go on witchhunts and crusades against the “evil” “bible-denying” “liberals” who hold to Christus Victor or Moral Exemplar views. Some evangelicals seem to have a lot of trouble grasping that there are really committed and dedicated Christians out there who really and truly believe that they are following the bible and who hold a view of the atonement different to Penal Substitution. A lot of evangelicals I have met simply express the view that these other “unsaved” Christians need to be saved taught the “true” gospel of penal substitution, rather than stopping to wonder if it isn’t their own tradition which is at fault for a too narrow or incorrect interpretation of the bible’s teachings on the atonement.

  30. Mark Jones says:

    “Some evangelicals seem to have a lot of trouble grasping that there are really committed and dedicated Christians out there who really and truly believe that they are following the bible and who hold a view of the atonement different to Penal Substitution.”

    Like a Socinian perhaps?

    Personally, I’m a little tired of blanket assertions by people on the blogosphere. Very rarely do we see someone posting with exegetical arguments. It’s all “I think this, and I think that …”

    Anyone who understands historical theology will note that a thoroughgoing doctrine of PS has always had either implicit or explicit CV overtones; after all, Gen. 3:15 certainly lends itself to both.

  31. Al says:


    Christus Victor seems to be a more dominant biblical theme than that of penal substitution. Wright has identified a fundamental flaw in the way that the evangelical tradition approaches its theology — they continually take Paul, and Romans in particular, as their starting point and read the rest of the Bible in the light of it. As a result they miss the fuller picture that would emerge from careful attention to the narrative of the cross presented within the gospels, for instance. Outside of Romans the theme of Christus Victor is probably far more dominant than that of penal substitution. The fact that Christus Victor is slightly more muted in Romans, however, has led evangelicals to largely neglect the Christus Victor theme and overemphasize that of penal substitution. Until conservative evangelicals address this fundamental problem in their theologizing they will always be vulnerable to the criticisms of those who pay more attention to the gospels in their theologizing than they do.

    I am well aware that many historical doctrines of penal substitution have implicit or explicit Christus Victor overtones. However, if anything, the Christus Victor theme is the more dominant Scriptural motif (and also logically prior to penal substitution). Genesis 3:15 is hardly clear evidence for penal substitution. A lot has to be read into that text for penal substitution to emerge. Even when they have acknowledged Christus Victor overtones, evangelical doctrines of the atonement have generally been narrowly focused on penal substitution.

    One of the more basic problems here is that evangelical and Reformed theology has historically been far too narrowly focused on the questions of individual soteriology. Within such a framework the purpose of the cross will become far too narrowly focused. The big questions about the cross for Reformed theology often have to do with such issues as limited atonement, for example. The cosmic significance of the atonement is often ignored and seldom explored in much depth. It is the focus of the evangelical doctrine of atonement that is most unbiblical.

    If our theology were less individualistic in its focus, we might, like the early Church fathers and a number of theologians in other traditions, begin to understand the atonement in more biblical ways, ways that are not so focused on penal substitution (without necessarily denying penal substitution). We would begin to see that questions like those of limited atonement are not the big questions that Scripture raises, but are chiefly products of our more narrow focus.

    And I must confess that I am quite disappointed that you bring the term ‘Socinian’ into this. None of the major evangelicals who reject penal substitution are Socinians, or even remotely near Socinians. The fact that you use such language suggests that you are not really prepared to give such people a fair hearing.

  32. Mark Jones says:


    I wasn’t implying that those who deny PS are Socinian. I was merely unsatisfied with the “I follow the bible approach” – a phrase often used by Socinus, Biddle, etc.

    For my own part (and countless others), PS is littered everywhere on the pages of the NT, not just Romans. That is why I find the Arminian rejection of PS, as it has been historically understood, ultimately destructive to the Christian faith.

    Also, the fact that I hold to the Christus Victor and PS flies in the face of your assertion that I am “not really prepared to give such people a fair hearing”.

    Didn’t your friend NTW give a detailed defense of PS based on Isa. 53?

  33. Phil Walker says:

    Al, you keep coming back to the point that, in your view, penal substitution only works in the context of Christus Victor (so is the “dominant Scriptural motif” and is “logically prior”). Would you agree that there can be thoughtful evangelicals who believe that Christus Victor only works in the context of penal substitution? I would give, as a classic example, Stott’s Cross of Christ, where that is exactly the view taken.

    Could you then understand why even such evangelicals would want to defend the doctrine of penal substitution from attack? Why we may do so with as much vigour as you defend Christus Victor? And why accusations of being “hopelessly sub-biblical” really don’t help?

  34. Al says:


    Actually, I do not believe that penal substitution only works in the context of Christus Victor. My point is rather that the Bible gives more attention to the Christus Victor theme and that there is a need for Christus Victor even where there is not a need for penal substitution, but never a need for the latter in the absence of the former. Even if Adam had never sinned, a defeat of Satan would still be necessary. This is part of what I meant by speaking of Christus Victor as ‘logically prior’.

    I am well aware of a number of evangelicals who have argued that Christus Victor only works in the context of penal substitution. Sinclair Ferguson, John Stott, the authors of the recent PfoT (from what I gather), etc. I just think that they are demonstrably wrong.

    The biblical teaching of the cross is far broader. Evangelical teaching tends to be narrowly focused on the cross as it serves the end of individual salvation, which accounts in part for the dominance of penal substitution in evangelical circles. There are undoubtedly Christus Victor overtones to be found in a penal substitution doctrine of the atonement and it is refreshing to hear evangelicals articulating these. However, Christus Victor really has a lot more to say than this. It gives a more cosmic scope to what Christ achieved on the cross.

    The victory of the cross led to Christ being exalted over all others and given all authority on heaven and earth. Through the cross Christ gained authority over all flesh and became Lord of all (John 17:2; Romans 14:9, etc.). In this sense, at least, Christ clearly died for everyone. This theme is quite muted in many evangelical presentations, but the theme of holy war with the demonic forces leading to victory at the cross and resurrection is quite clearly present in the gospels and elsewhere in Scripture. As a theme in the overall narrative of Scripture, it is a far more dominant theme than that of penal substitution.

    If I were to speak of one overarching theme for atonement, satisfaction might be a better candidate. Satisfaction has room for both penal substitution and Christus Victor. Christus Victor was an aspect of Anselm’s doctrine of satisfaction, for example:—

    Anselm. Man being made holy was placed in paradise, as it were in the place of God, between God and the devil, to conquer the devil by not yielding to his temptation, and so to vindicate the honor of God and put the devil to shame, because that man, though weaker and dwelling upon earth, should not sin though tempted by the devil, while the devil, though stronger and in heaven, sinned without any to tempt him. And when man could have easily effected this, he, without compulsion and of his own accord, allowed himself to be brought over to the will of the devil, contrary to the will and honor of God.

    Boso. To what would you bring me?

    Anselm. Decide for yourself if it be not contrary to the honor of God for man to be reconciled to Him, with this calumnious reproach still heaped upon God; unless man first shall have honored God by overcoming the devil, as he dishonored him in yielding to the devil. Now the victory ought to be of this kind, that, as in strength and immortal vigor, he freely yielded to the devil to sin, and on this account justly incurred the penalty of death; so, in his weakness and mortality, which he had brought upon himself, he should conquer the devil by the pain of death, while wholly avoiding sin. But this cannot be done, so long as from the deadly effect of the first transgression, man is conceived and born in sin.

    However, I remain unconvinced that there is any overarching model, into which all other models must fit. For example, the doctrine of atonement that we find in Philippians 2:5-11 is certainly not explicitly one of penal substitution. It isn’t even clearly Christus Victor. It focuses on Christ as the example that we must follow and the obedience of the cross as paradigmatic for our obedience. It also would seem to suggest the cross as recapitulation. Christ renders the true service that Adam failed to give.

    I can understand why evangelicals want to defend penal substitution. I want to protect the substance of the doctrine, but I want to distance myself from many of the forms in which the doctrine is expressed. I would happily avoid the language of ‘penal substitution’ if I could. Without wanting to deny what evangelicals generally mean by this, I think that there are more helpful ways of speaking about it. One of the things that frustrates me in the present debates is that I do not believe that Chalke is entirely rejecting the substance of penal substitution in the manner that many presume that he is.

    One of the strange things about the current debate is that are evangelicals who reject ‘penal substitution’, but hold something very similar, expressed in slightly different categories. There are distinctions made between ‘punishment’ and a God-ordained ‘penalty’, for instance. In general, such approaches are concerned to avoid the idea of retribution, the idea that the cross is about sin being punished by an equivalent amount of suffering. Sinful humanity is justly condemned to death. Christ bears this penalty in his own death. Sin is condemned in His flesh and in His humanity a new restored relationship with God is made possible.

    The distinctions here may be subtle, but I think that they are not unimportant. There is a very significant difference between saying that Christ bore God’s condemnation on Sin in His own flesh and saying that God killed His Son to punish Sin in His flesh, just as there is a difference between the statements ‘in the day you eat of it you shall surely die’ and ‘in the day that you eat of it I will surely kill you.’

    Many forms of penal substitution hold that God the Father was the direct cause of Christ’s suffering. The Father was inflicting suffering upon His Son to satisfy His wrath. This is the position that Chalke and many of the other evangelical opponents of penal substitution are particularly attacking. They are not necessarily opposed to the idea that God condemns Sin and that humanity is condemned to death (alienation from God) by virture of its sin. However, God the Father is not the direct cause of the Son’s suffering. Rather, the Son is bearing the full condemnation of death so that we might be saved from the punishment and wrath of God. The chief cause of Christ’s sufferings is death as the God-ordained consequence of sin.

    The interesting thing is that some who hold this position strongly attack ‘penal substitution’, identifying penal substitution as the view that God the Father is the chief cause of Christ’s suffering, inflicting suffering on Christ to satisfy His wrath. Others who hold the position claim that it is penal substitution. In his book Chalke attacked the more ‘hardcore’ form of penal substitution. Most of the passages of Chalke that I have read and the fact that Chalke has said to Wright that he does not reject Wright’s own position (which Wright speaks of as penal substitution) suggest that Chalke’s own position is far closer to the toned down version of atonement that I mention above than it is to a wholesale rejection of all that penal substitution stands for.

    As regards the ‘hopelessly sub-biblical’ rhetoric, I agree. Whilst I can understand his motivations to some extent, it really is unhelpful and I wish that Wright had not used it. I should be attending a Wright lecture next week. Perhaps I will have the opportunity to ask him about it then.

  35. Al says:


    Thanks for the clarification.

    I agree that penal substitution can be found throughout Scripture (as you point out, Wright demonstrates its presence in Isaiah and in the gospels). My point is that it is not generally the dominant theme outside of Romans as it is within the book of Romans. Certainly if our focus is on the larger biblical narrative, Christus Victor would seem to be the more dominant theme.

    A wholesale rejection of all that penal substitution stands for would probably strike at the heart of Christian faith. However, I am convinced that there is more to the current debates than first appears to be the case. I suspect that a sympathetic reading of Chalke will make clear that, on this issue at least, he is far from a gospel-denying heretic. He rejects a more ‘hardcore’ doctrine of penal substitution, but does not really come out against the more moderate forms (although he would not use the language of his own position).

    My expressed concern that you were ‘not really prepared to give such people a fair hearing’ had to do with the comparison that you made with Socinians. That is quite a negative comparison to make and it suggested to me that you weren’t prepared to really hear people like Chalke out on this one, to make clear whether they really do reject penal substitution as strongly as many argue that they do. The issue was not whether you were prepared to accept a Christus Victor dimension in your doctrine of atonement, but whether you were prepared to be open to the possibility that Chalke might not be as black as he is painted to be.

  36. Al says:

    The above will have to be my last comment on this subject until after the weekend at the earliest. I have an important paper due on Monday, and I have yet to start it.

  37. Mark Jones says:

    Incidentally, I’ve never read Chalke!

  38. Andrew W says:

    Me Previously: Some evangelicals seem to have a lot of trouble grasping that there are really committed and dedicated Christians out there who really and truly believe that they are following the bible and who hold a view of the atonement different to Penal Substitution.

    Mark’s response: Like a Socinian perhaps?

    My new reply: Yes, like a Socinian… or like Peter Abelard… or like Gustaf Aulen… or like the quarter of a billion Eastern Orthodox Christians today. There are many many Christians around the world who reject PS in part or entire, and who believe they are truly following Christ, following Paul, and following the teachings of the bible.

    Personally, I have spent years studying the bible, and the latest scholarship, and what different Christian groups have believed throughout history, and I do not believe PS is at all biblical. Rather I think the bible teaches Christus Victor, Moral Exemplar, and as Al put it “Christ as paradigmatic for our obedience”, among other motifs. I think those who find PS in the bible are in fact misinterpreting ambiguous passages, usually because they are ignorant of any alternate interpretations of the passages to the PS interpretation they have been taught. Paul’s writings especially are notoriously easy to misinterpret, as 2 Peter mentions and as New Perspective scholars have revealed.

    To give a couple of examples of commonly used mistaken logic…
    The NT references to sacrifices are often appealed to as in some way proving PS. People often wrongly assume that sacrifices worked by PS and then wrongly assume that any NT references to the sacrifice of Jesus mean his death worked by PS. Whereas modern academic studies of the sacrificial systems reveal that sacrifices worked in a number of different ways, and none of them look much like PS. The NT references many different types of sacrifices, all of which worked differently. Thus the NT does not make any one particular point through sacrificial imagery about how Jesus’ death “worked”, but rather draws on different sacrificial imagery on an ad hoc basis.

    To give a second example, the phrases “Christ died for us” are commonly appealed to as in some way proving PS. It is wrongly assumed that this phrase implies the event of Christ’s death was spiritually effective for us. However, a recent scholarly survey of ancient Greek literature revealed over one hundred occurrences of the phrase “X died for Y”. One hundred percent of the time it was found to have a meaning indicating some sort of martyrdom in a broad sense. Usually, it was used to refer to a soldier in an army who fought and died for his city in war. Sometimes it refers to someone who fights and dies for their family, and sometimes to those who are martyred for their religion. It consistently refers to fighting and dying for a cause, and it does not imply that the person’s death itself was of atoning value but rather their death fighting for their cause is seen as an indication of their loyalty and faithfulness and perseverance to that cause. Thus when the bible says “Christ died for us”, the phrase itself does not by itself imply any sort of mystical atoning value to his death, but rather sets Christ against a backdrop of martyrdom, of faithfully holding to a cause to the point of death.

    I could give more such examples. But I find it a consistent pattern that passages which people think teach PS they are actually misinterpreting and misunderstanding due to their own mistaken assumptions and a lack of knowledge of the latest scholarship about the historical context. The biggest problem I think is that many Christians have simply never encountered any clear alternatives to Penal Substitution. Zealous conservative leaders have often laboured long and hard to prevent any views of the cross other than PS from reaching the ears of their flock. Thus I find that many evangelicals simply have no idea how to understand Christ’s work outside of a Penal Substitutionary understanding. It seems to them that if PS is false then “Christ died for nothing” simply because they have never encountered any other way of understanding Christ’s life and death or the bible.

  39. Mark says:

    “I do not believe PS is at all biblical”

    I think you should study your NT a little more carefully and I’m not trying to be smart here. I’m dead serious. And, BTW, Aulen’s study is full of problems.

  40. Mark says:

    PS In making such a bold claim, why don’t you give us a little exegesis rather than references to extra-biblical literature?

  41. Andrew W says:

    > I think you should study your NT a
    > little more carefully

    I read every book in the NT on a fairly regular basis. I read works by every major modern NT scholar. I read commentaries by both ancient and modern writers. I do word studies. I consult interlinears. I discuss theology with people online. Studying NT theology is my single biggest hobby and I have spent a huge proportion of my time for the past six years doing it. Seriously, how [i]can[/i] I study the NT more carefully?

    > Aulen’s study is full of problems.

    I agree, and most studies have problems. It doesn’t stop him from being a well-intentioned dedicated Christian though. My observation is that many such Christians who study the bible come to a variety of different conclusions about whether PS is present or not in the biblical texts.

    Studying the atonement is not simply a matter of exegeting one or two passages, (though it certainly does involve analyzing many passages carefully) but rather studying the entire NT as a whole. It involves studying the life and intentions of Jesus, looking at how he saw himself and how the gospels present him. It involves studying Paul’s theology, looking at how Paul saw Jesus and how that fitted into his theology. It involves studying the sacrificial system, what sacrifices meant, and what the early Christians were meaning by their use of sacrificial language. It involves studying the entire system of salvation as held by the NT Church and coming to understand how Jesus fitted into their picture.

    Only in the context of an overall paradigm do individual verses about the atonement find their meaning. Serious analysis and exegesis is actually a matter of learning about different possible paradigms and testing them carefully against everything the bible says to see which paradigm agrees best. After much study, it is my conclusion that the paradigm of Penal Substitution does not fit nearly as well against the biblical evidence as other paradigms. I often find in discussions with staunch defenders of PS that they are simply not very knowledgeable of paradigms other than their own. It is not that they have searched deeply into other paradigms and compared them carefully to the bible and found PS to be the best one, but rather PS is often the only paradigm they know.

  42. Andrew W says:

    > study your NT a little more carefully

    On further reflections, it’s interesting you say that, because one of the issues I have with PS believers is that they tend to not read the gospels carefully enough. They go to John 1:1 for a divine Jesus and then straight to the cross for his blood and atonement. If they treated the gospel accounts more like a biography of a historical man Jesus they would see a lot more. If instead of getting fixated on “was Jesus God?” when reading the gospels, and we instead ask “So what did Jesus do in his earthly life and what was he trying to achieve?” we suddenly start getting some unexpected answers.

    Because, when we take the gospel’s account seriously, we see Jesus was a social activist. Out of concern for the poor he challenged the rich and their systems. He challenged the traditional Jewish customs of the Law on moral grounds. He challenged the temple and religious authorities, criticizing custom and practice out of concern for morality and the plight of the poor. He practiced healing and was able to heal many sick and suffering (a major cause of poverty in the ancient world). He gathers a band of followers around him and teaches them how to heal and gather more followers. Most of his parables to them have perseverance as a moral. The gospels are full of exhortation for them to persevere in the face of the persecution and suffering he expects to come. We see him initially trying to keep his movement secret from the authorities, and finally going public. The authorities plot against him because of his teachings. Eventually they put him to death because of them. He dies a social activist martyred by the authorities.

    Then God resurrects him, proving God’s endorsement of his teachings and movement. Paul the Pharisee after seeing the resurrected Jesus is convinced that this proves God approved of Jesus’ life and teachings. Thus Paul’s all consuming goal becomes to imitate Jesus’ life and teachings so that he himself might find favor in God’s eyes. Jesus’ death is then seen by the NT Christians as the exemplary culmination of his faithfulness to God, as he died for his teachings and his cause and thus for us who follow him.

    To put it in more systematic theology terms: Through being inspired by the life and teachings of Christ, learning from them and putting them into practice, and looking to his example of faithfulness, that humans are thereby able to, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to radically transform their lives in real and meaningful ways, escaping from the enslaving power of sin and living lives of real righteousness and goodness in love which is truly pleasing to God in the fullest sense, and thereby achieving God’s favor, and by virtue of their own now-achieved Christ-likeness, escaping the final judgment against the wicked and achieving for themselves a positive verdict and reward from God in the form of everlasting life.

    Anyway, now you’ve got a basic outline of the paradigm I think is the best one we can discuss exegesis of any particular verse if you wish.

  43. Al says:


    Just so long as you recognize that many, who have studied even more than you have, have come to quite contrasting conclusions about the biblical nature of penal substitution. Yes, there are misconceptions and distorted views, but there are also more balanced and nuanced presentations. For instance, Wright can hardly be accused of not reading the gospels carefully enough and he strongly argues for the presence of penal substitution as a major theme within them. Clearly there is more to this debate than mere amount of study. There are thinking biblical scholars on most sides of this debate.

  44. Phil Walker says:

    Al, thanks for that response. Especially helpful was clearing up my misunderstanding of what you’d written previously. Obviously we’re hardly going to agree completely, but carving out some common ground is helpful; I rather wish that our side tried as hard to put out statements of real, substantive agreement as they do in stating areas of disagreement.

  45. Anonymous says:

    Pierced for our transgressions- A response to NTW’s criticism. Reproduced here in full.

    N. T. Wright does not like Pierced for our Transgressions, as he explains HERE. Some have already responded to him HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE. While we are grateful for constructive criticism, Wright is mistaken at several important points. We offer a brief response.

    First, N. T. Wright takes exception to our criticism of Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s The Lost Message of Jesus, a book which he continues to endorse. He tries to argue that the now-notorious reference to ‘cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed’ (Lost Message, p. 182) was never intended as a description of penal substitution itself (which Wright assures us that Chalke believes), but was rather an attack on a caricature of the doctrine.

    We would be pleased if that were the case, but this reading of Chalke is simply impossible. Wright seems to be unaware that Chalke clarified his position in an article in Christianity magazine entitled ‘Cross Purposes’ (September 2004, pp. 44–48, online HERE; available as ‘Redeeming the Cross’ from the Oasis Trust website HERE; reprinted with slight revisions in Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, ed. S. Barrow and J. Bartley [Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005]), written in response to the controversy triggered by The Lost Message. Here Chalke makes it plain that it is the classic doctrine of penal substitution itself, not merely its caricatures, that he finds objectionable.

    ‘In reality, penal substitution (in contrast to other substitutionary theories) doesn’t cohere well with either biblical or Early Church thought. Although penal substitution isn’t as old as many people assume (it’s not even as old as the pews in many of our church buildings), it is actually built on pre-Christian thought.’

    Or again:

    ‘In The Lost Message of Jesus I claim that penal substitution is tantamount to “child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.” Though the sheer bluntness of this imagery (not original to me of course) might shock some, in truth, it is only a stark “unmasking” of the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind such a theology.’

    If Chalke has given private assurances to Wright that he wishes to retract his previous denials of penal substitution, we hope that he will realise the importance of making this public.

    Secondly, Wright’s central objection to our work seems not to be directed at any of the specific biblical or theological arguments we have advanced in support of penal substitution. Rather, his quibble is a methodological one: he complains that we have not set our whole discussion within the framework of a narrative-theological exposition of Israel’s history as it reaches its fulfilment in Christ. He even goes so far as to assert that we ‘ignore the history of Israel’ (italics original), which seems at best overstated. For example, we set the Passover in the context of the Abrahamic covenant (pp. 35, 41–42), the Levitical sacrifices in the context of the preceding Exodus narrative (pp. 42–43), God’s curse on sin in the context of Israel’s exile (pp. 93–95, 122), the life of Jesus in the context of Israel’s role in God’s purposes (pp. 134–135).

    However, there is a difference between the kind of narrative theology project in which Wright has been engaged for so many years, and the approach of classical systematic theology, which looks to provide an integrated picture of the Bible’s teaching on particular themes. Surely both are helpful and appropriate. A book professing to summarise the message of John’s Gospel must begin with the whole structure of his narrative, the place of the signs, and so on. Conversely, the section on John in a systematic work on the Trinity will necessarily – and rightly – focus on those specific passages which have most to say about the Father-Son relationship, the sending of the Spirit, etc.

    Wright accuses us of ‘sifting’ the Gospels for material relevant to our subject, and indeed that is exactly what we were trying to do! That does not mean that we are free to abstract ‘proof-texts’ from their contexts, and so we took pains to avoid that. But Wright censures us for failing to hit a target we were not aiming at. We did not profess to answer the question, ‘What do the gospels teach about Jesus?’ nor even, ‘What picture of the atonement emerges from the gospels as a whole?’ Our aim, as we explain in the introduction to our exegetical section (pp. 33–34) was more modest. We were trying to establish simply that penal substitution has a place in this bigger picture.

    Thirdly, Wright criticises our exegesis of Romans and Galatians. Interpretation of these epistles must reckon with the ongoing debates over the so-called New Perspective on Paul, in which Wright himself is a central figure. Not wanting to privilege exclusively either side, our approach in Galatians was to demonstrate that penal substitution follows from both the traditional and the New Perspective approaches; we even devoted a section to a (sympathetic) discussion of Wright’s narrative reading of the curse as exile in Galatians 3 (pp. 93–94).

    In Romans we took care to avoid conclusions that depend exclusively on either framework (p. 80). Wright objects that we should have said more about the meaning of ‘the righteousness of God’ and its relationship to the Abrahamic covenant. But he himself concedes that these things are controversial, and since they are not necessary to establish the more general points (on which all can agree) that God is angered by sin (Rom. 1–3) and that Christ’s death turned aside his anger (Rom. 3:21–26), it seemed wise to omit them.

    Wright is clearly dissatisfied, and wants us to make his way of reading the Bible our controlling hermeneutic; anything short of this he deems ‘sub-biblical’. But to base our case solely on a position that continues to be hotly debated in New Testament Studies would have been counterproductive. As it is, our aim was that our exegesis should stand ‘regardless of which path is taken with respect to the issues of recent controversy’ (p. 89).

    As a postscript, we should say something in reply to Wright’s surprise that we ‘omit all mention or discussion of Anselm.’ The reason is simply that, contrary to (popular?) belief, Anselm did not teach penal substitution. Yes, he brought to prominence the vocabulary of ‘satisfaction’, which became important in later formulations. But in Anselm’s feudal thought-world, it was God’s honour that needed to be satisfied by substitutionary obedience, not his justice by substitutionary penalty. Thus his omission from our list of those who have endorsed penal substitution was not accidental.

    Taken from- http://piercedforourtransgressions.com/content/view/107/51/

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